Reappraising the Beatles

Rubber_Soul

In the booklet for the 1968 Angel Records album of Busoni’s Piano Concerto, played by John Ogden, there was a photo that I doubt many Beatles fans ever saw because there was, really, nothing about this complex music that would have drawn them to buy it. Sitting in the control booth, listening to the playback, were Ogden, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, The latter two were looking at the score as they were listening.

This may seem like a particularly odd way to start an article on The Beatles, but at the time I found it quite telling. Here were these two Liverpool scruffians, raised on pop music of their time and among the world’s most famous dispensers of rock music, actually interested enough in this piece to go into the control booth and follow the score. Of course, they were at the Abbey Road studios anyway because they were in the midst of recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I doubt that they would have asked to look at the score if they hadn’t been interested. And it shows an angle to The Beatles that was not well known and, had it been known, would have been glossed over or completely ignored by their fans. They—but specifically McCartney and Lennon—were voracious listeners who tried to absorb all kinds of music.

I was only 11 years old when The Beatles first became famous with their hit record, Love Me Do. I didn’t like them much. I kind of liked Do You Want to Know a Secret?, but also didn’t care for She Loves You, Please Please Me, Can’t Buy Me Love and many of their other early hit records.

But their impact on the music industry in general was so powerful that, as early as 1965—by which time they had only evolved as far as their second movie, Help!—there baroque beatleswere serious articles in which learned college professors tried their damnedest to try to “prove” that what they were doing was “really” music. In the process, jazz-pop singer Keely Smith turned out a fairly awful album of swing arrangements of The Beatles’ early songs and classical musician Joshua Rifkin produced a surprisingly creative LP of rather complex arrangements titled The Baroque Beatles Book. Even classical mezzo Cathy Berberian gut into the act a little later, doing an album of Beatles songs in quasi-classical arrangements.

Yet, surprisingly, even the latter two projects ended up diluting the impact of their original recordings or, worse yet, making them sound like parodies and caricatures. The last Beatles’ single I bought was Help/I’m Down. I thought it sucked. Over the next couple of years, I did find myself liking some of the singles they released from their albums RevolverRubber Soul and Revolver, such as Nowhere Man, Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, but felt that I was indulging in a guilty pleasure. I saw Sgt. Pepper’s in the record store but didn’t buy it, in part because that was their only album that spawned no single release, and I wasn’t going to buy a Beatles album on spec. It turned out to be my mistake. It wasn’t until the spring of 1968 that I finally heard the album in my high school English class: the teacher had asked us to bring in records we liked to play in class because it was the next-to-last day of our senior year. I was floored by the sophistication of many (but not all) of the songs, the richness of George Martin’s arrangements, and most astonishing of all, the variety of styles used in that album.

From that point on, I began following The Beatles again. I bought Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, Let it Be and the “double white album,” and most of what I heard I liked.

But as my musical tastes grew and became more sophisticated, I left The Beatles behind. I figured that they were indeed a guilty pleasure from my misspent youth, and walked away from them. Yet as the rock music scene changed and morphed, over and over and over again, I eventually came to realize that except for Blondie and Billy Joel, I liked absolutely no pop music that came after them—certainly not The Rolling Stones, who I always found to be gauche, sexist, obnoxious and crude, no matter how often they had choruses or orchestras on their records.

Recently, I downloaded and burned most of my favorite Beatles songs to a CD. A few were pre-Rubber Soul songs such as I Call Your Name, We Can Work it Out, I’ll Follow the Sun, Another Girl, Day Tripper and, yes, one song from Help! (You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away), but most came from 1966 onward.

And this time, I did something I had never done when I was young. I listened critically to their music. In the process, I found that even as far back as I Call Your Name they were doing things different from other rock groups. Originally written, along with Bad to Me, by Lennon and McCartney for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (another group managed by Brian Epstein), the Kramer version is good but pretty straightforward. John Lennon hated it, as well as the fact that Kramer decided to make it the “B” side of the 45. The Beatles’ own version is filled with unusual, astringent harmonies that clash rather than complement the simple melody, along with a patented “Lennon riff” (he was a genius at coming up with these) behind the words, “Don’t you know I can’t take it/I don’t know who can,” and during George Harrison’s guitar solo a change in rhythm that sounded like ska—then an almost unknown type of music.

Slightly after this period, the Beatles were already experimenting with different types of songs that sounded nothing like most of their pop hits, such as McCartney’s I’ll Follow the Sun and the collaborative We Can Work it Out. This was yet another facet of the Beatles that would eventually make them unique: they wrote and recorded the widest range of material of any pop-rock group of their time or after. Even before Sgt. Pepper’s, there were such interesting songs as Girl, Yesterday, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (I think their first tune written in 3/4), Norwegian Wood (their second song in 3/4), Taxman (a George Harrison song), Eleanor Rigby and Good Day Sunshine, the latter having a sort of rolling quasi-jazz beat. Even the hit song We Can Work it Out had an unusual rhythm, with a shift from 4 to 3 in the middle strain.

Mind you, this isn’t the highest level of musical art, but it is the highest level of popular music craft—and none of those who sang “Beatles tunes” wanted to bother with their own complex arrangements. Small wonder that those who heard only cover versions thought they were talentless.

Sgt._Pepper'sWith Sgt. Pepper’s, the LSD-drenched album from which no single was released, there were many songs that were clever (and even catchy, like With a Little Help From My Friends), but the “stoned songs” like Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, A Day in the Life, Within You Without You and even For the Benefit of Mr. Kite didn’t appeal to me much. The songs I really liked were generally the ones others didn’t: She’s Leaving Home (one of their very best songs in 3), Getting Better, Fixing a Hole, Lovely Rita and When I’m Sixty-Four. The latter was in some ways just a catchy old-styled vaudeville tune, but the clever lyrics made it memorable.

And that was another feature of their music that elevated it above the crowd. Both Lennon and McCartney could write fine lyrics, and even when the lyrics weren’t stellar the wedding of the words with the music was. A good example was Penny Lane, which stays in the mind despite the fact that it just describes normal everyday events on an obscure Liverpool street. The Fool on the Hill was probably their best “stoned” song, in part Abbey Roadbecause the lyrics could easily describe Zen meditation. Yet except for some rather silly songs, such as Come Together and the long and ghastly I Want You (She’s So Heavy), I still think the Abbey Road album was their best work, particularly the second side of the album which started with Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun and then worked its way through a long medley of new tunes that somehow interlocked and made for a remarkable medley. True, some of the lyrics here, such as She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Golden Slumbers and Carry That Weight, make little sense, but again—it’s the wedding of words and music that captures the imagination.

Of course, the contribution of George Martin, one of four people who were referred to as “the fifth Beatle” (the others were original bass guitarist Stu Sutcliffe, who died in London at age 22, manager Epstein, and New York rock promoter/DJ Murray the K), had much to do with their later success. Martin had a keen ear for the subtleties of the Beatles’ harmonies as well as exceptionally good taste in arranging. He started off slowly, adding a French horn behind You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and a string quartet behind Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby, but came into his own from Sgt. Pepper’s on to the end. John Lennon sometimes thought him a bother who “prettified” their music too much, but Paul McCartney, with his keener ear for orchestration and harmony, absolutely loved him. There is no question that without Martin, the Beatles’ music would never have achieved the richness it had in those latter years. Some rock fans agreed with Lennon and hated Martin’s arrangements, but most people I knew thought them excellent.

Another reason for the Beatles’ wide diversity in musical styles (their body of work covers a much wider spectrum than any other rock group in my experience) was that their three primary members, John, Paul and George, all had their own diverse viewpoints and skills. McCartney was obviously the most prodigiously gifted: he could whip up memorable melodies at the drop of a hat. But Lennon’s hard blues edginess and genius for inventing counter-lines was equally amazing and thus gave virility to their music. Listening to the out-takes of some of their songs from Sgt. Pepper’s on forward, one is amazed at how much better most of these songs sounded once Paul or John added something to the mix than in their original conception. George was very talented in terms of blues inflections, but more often than not he was relegated to the back burner because he had the quietest and least aggressive personality of those three. For the “White Album,” for instance, George made no less than 102 takes of a very fine song called Not Guilty that was never issued on that LP–and, ironically, the song’s lyrics refer to the fact that he was often overruled by the other two. And this is the reason that although all three had some success after the demise of the band (McCartney most of all), the music they produced independently was not as rich or as varied overall as the music they produced when they were together.

Ironically, the more they got away from being a unified band that sang and played their simpler dance tunes as a group and moved towards more interesting and complex pieces, the more it became obvious that although they generally meshed as a unit their strong musical personalities were driving them apart. Even if Yoko Ono had not appeared on the scene, the Beatles probably would not have lasted as a working band more than two or three years beyond the point when they broke up. The Rolling Stones, which had no such divergent musical personalities in the group, would go on much longer.

There really was a lot going on in The Beatles’ music during the years 1966-71, the period I loved the most. Among the things they did that enhanced their music was experimenting with layering, recessing vocals and instrumental licks or bringing them forward, overdubbing vocals, etc. Others had used some of these effects previously, but not to the extent that the Beatles did, and there is much more variety in their music, even having George play a Chicago-styled bottleneck blues guitar in For You Blue. Like many who moved on to more sophisticated music in later years, I gave up on them and abandoned by Beatles collection, but now I listen to the best songs from that period, even the tongue-in-cheek ones like Back in the USSR and the wicked black humor of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, with joy. At their considerable best, they just seem to make your day a little bit brighter. Just don’t start listening to them as the voice of God or anything, as some people I know do.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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